Islamic Philosophy – Al Farabi

Abu Nasr al-Farabi (870 – 950 CE) is known as the Second Teacher in Islamic philosophy, as he brought Aristotelian logic into Islamic thought and made it central, which connected Boethius (d. 525 CE) to Abelard (d. 1141) in France, passing Greek logic from Roman to medieval European hands along with others.  While al-Kindi (d. 866 CE) and al-Razi (d. 925) brought Greek philosophy into Islamic thought, it is al-Farabi, and following him Avicenna and Averroes, who focused on Aristotelian Peripatetic logic and what it can and can’t say.

Farabi was born in Farab, conveniently, what is today Kazakstan, northern lands of what was Persia, and his family was Turkish, from the lands Greeks and Persians fought over in Aristotle’s time.  After working as a gardener in Damascus, Syria, he moved to Baghdad and devoted himself to studying Arabic, which he didn’t know, as he spoke Turkish, as well as all the logic and philosophy he could in Syriac and Arabic with the famous logician Abu Bishr Matta (d. 911) and Ibn Haylan.  Farabi was a great musician who wrote primary studies on music theory, and it is said that he once played for al-Dawlah, ruler of Aleppo, so well that he moved everyone to tears, then made them all laugh until they fell asleep, while Farabi quietly left. He wrote many books on cosmology, politics and logic, traveled, taught, and died in Damascus in 950 CE, almost 650 years before Descartes, the first major modern European philosopher, was born in France in 1594.

There was a famous debate between Abu Bishr Matta, Farabi’s teacher and leading logican of Baghdad, and al-Sirafi, a famed jurist and grammarian, in front of Vizier Ibn al-Furat in 932 CE.  Matta argued logic is a tool for judging right and wrong words. Sirafi said it seems debate is a matter for grammarians, and wondered what Greek logic could do to help guard a Turk, Indian or Arab against speaking incorrectly.  Matta answered that logic grasps concepts that underly all languages, such that grammar and culture are irrelevant to what is true or false in any and all languages. Islamic philosophers often mention that Islam includes many cultures together as one understanding and meaning, such as the Sufi poet Rumi, who appropriated the Indian Jain metaphor of the blind men and the elephant.

Al-Farabi’s theory of certainty centers on perfect agreement, on the highest certainty in what can be known and is known to not possibly be otherwise, and how Aristotle’s syllogisms, when used correctly, can provide this, which leads to happiness and fulfillment.  While most people are only capable of theology, only the philosopher can learn the forms of complete agreement, which is participation with the perfect thought of God as far us mortals can. Al-Farabi studied and commented on all of the Organon, the logical works of Aristotle, and the Greek Neo-Platonist commentaries of Plotinus and Porphyry on Aristotle as well.  Some, the few who have read and studied his works, say his Terms Used In Logic (al-Alfaz al-Musta’malah fi’l-Mantiq) and other introductory treatises on logic and commentaries on the Organon are unsurpassed until modern times, making more sense of Aristotle than anyone had so far, perhaps even Aristotle himself.  

Farabi called his Platonism, with plenty of Aristotelianism, his foreign philosophy (al-Hikmah al-Mashriqiyah), often translated as oriental philosophy, as the word oriental was used, quite simply, to mean foreign by European translators, covering Asia, Africa and the Americas.  Al-Farabi says we should borrow some, but not all of the Greek logical terms, and some from the Arabic grammarians, similar to the Hindu grammarians of India, including what, how, which and why to seek the reasons for things with logic.  While grammarians, Farabi says, study the relationship between words, terms and sentences, the logicians study the relationship between concepts (ma’ani), thoughts and meanings, according to rules that Farabi thinks Aristotle began to articulate and he attempts to clarify.  Farabi argues that logic (mantiq) is etymologically derived from the word for speech (nutq), and that ancient philosophers used inward speech to grasp mental concepts, the “intelligibles” of things beyond their physical form, and outward speech to point to physical objects.

Farabi argues being (mawjud) is most fundamental to logic as a category and term, as it applies to each of the other categories, if they are categories, and exist, and it applies to things as well as what is true, what stands and exists, and being is the term closest in meaning to truth, more than any other word.  Substance or stuff is jawhar, which Farabi says etymologically means jewel in Persian, possibly because substance is the most precious and primary of the categories, what is and exists, and he argues that Aristotle considered actual existing individuals primary substances, and universals secondary substances, possibly mental as opposed to physical.  Farabi says that a definition (hadd) is a statement of the essential categories, while a description is a statement of accidental, inessential differences, giving us the examples Man is a rational animal, the famous statement of Aristotle, as an example of a definition, and Man is a laughing animal, sadly, as an example of mere, inessential description.  Nietzsche said, “Man is the only animal that laughs, or needs to,” likely mocking Aristotle and unfamiliar with al-Farabi.

Farabi says logic is a tool that produces certainty when used properly in all arts, and in all the practical and theoretical sciences.  Farabi argues, using and extending an example found in the Nyaya Sutra, that if we know that a cloud always has a rippling wind, and this wind causes the sound of thunder when clouds bump into each other, we can say, syllogistically, that the cloud causes the sound, and we can also, he adds, define thunder thus, as the sound made by rippling wind in clouds colliding, which is how it is caused, created and so speciated.  A definition has two parts, genus and differendum for Aristotle, the larger group that the thing shares with other things, and what can be said of it that it is different from the other things of the same set.  As such, thunder is a type of sound, and, to differentiate it from other sounds, it is specifically the sound made by rippling wind in clouds colliding.

Farabi gives the example of a circle, which can be defined as a figure with a line with all points equidistant from the center, which means, he strangely argues, that a line itself can’t be a figure.  If a figure is a larger group, and circle is a member of the set, and a certain sort of line is part of what differentiates members of the set from each other, then Farabi reasons that figure is the largest set, circle smaller, and lines incidental differences.  This is odd, as reptiles can be four-footed, and so can mammals, but if all mammals and reptiles are not then neither reptile nor four-footed is simply a larger group, but rather an intersecting set, and snakes have no feet, humans have two, as Plato and Diogenes both know while arguing over a chicken.  Venn diagrams are better at this than a tree of superior One differentiating into inferior many. This is also strangely similar to Hui Shi’s paradox that a four sided figure is more than four sided if it is a figure, as one side is contained by the lines but not a line itself.

Al-Farabi argued that thought, identified Platonically with sight and the imagination, is in the heart, which can imitate what we sense to understand and represent, and create to reason and speculate.  Farabi uses the example of imagining evil as symbolized by darkness, which is seeing darkness and feeling evil in the imagination. Farabi calls genius overflow of imagination.  Farabi argues that poetry is good for improving the imagination, which is useful in all thinking and studied subjects, but poetry can nobly direct the rational faculty to higher forms and moderate our emotions, or it can stimulate the baser emotions and pleasures, which leads to weakness of constitution and character.

Farabi argues this is how Mohammed and other prophets teach and inspire humanity through images, metaphors and analogies, as they have an overabundance of thought, imagination and meaning that helps them see images others can feel.  Angered by dismissals of Aristotle and those who studied Greek works, al Farabi argued that logic was already found in reasoning from the seen to the unseen in theology and law, and could be used to further strengthen both. Many Islamic philosophers argued, following Farabi, that philosophy and science are perfectly in accord with Islam to defend against charges of heresy, much as later European philosophers and scientists did.  Many Christian scholars worked to translate Farabi’s Arabic works on logic into Latin, including Herman the German (d. 1272), who actually worked and lived in Toledo, Spain, not Ohio.

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